Why were members
of the Third Estate
life under the
Peasants formed the largest group within the Third Estate, more than
80 percent of France’s 26 million people. Peasants paid about half their
income in dues to nobles, tithes to the Church, and taxes to the king’s
agents. They even paid taxes on such basic staples as salt. Peasants and
the urban poor resented the clergy and the nobles for their privileges and
special treatment. The heavily taxed and discontented Third Estate was
eager for change.
The Forces of Change
In addition to the growing resentment among the lower classes, other
factors contributed to the revolutionary mood in France. New ideas about
government, serious economic problems, and weak and indecisive leader-
ship all helped to generate a desire for change.
New views about power and authority in govern-
ment were spreading among the Third Estate. Members of the Third Estate
were inspired by the success of the American Revolution. They began
questioning long-standing notions about the structure of society. Quot-
ing Rousseau and Voltaire, they began to demand equality, liberty, and
By the 1780s, France’s once prosperous economy was
in decline. This caused alarm, particularly among the merchants, factory
owners, and bankers of the Third Estate. On the surface, the economy
appeared to be sound, because both production and trade were expanding
rapidly. However, the heavy burden of taxes made it almost impossible to
conduct business profitably within France. Further, the cost of living was
rising sharply. In addition, bad weather in the 1780s caused widespread
crop failures, resulting in a severe shortage of grain. The price of bread
doubled in 1789, and many people faced starvation.
During the 1770s and 1780s, France’s government sank deeply into
debt. Part of the problem was the extravagant spending of
. Louis also inherited a considerable debt
from previous kings. And he borrowed heavily in order to help the Ameri-
can revolutionaries in their war against Great Britain, France’s chief rival.
This nearly doubled the government’s debt. In 1786, when bankers refused
to lend the government any more money, Louis faced serious problems.
A Weak Leader
Strong leadership might have solved these and other
problems. Louis XVI, however, was indecisive and allowed matters to drift.
He paid little attention to his government advisers, and had little patience
for the details of governing. The queen only added to Louis’s problems.
She often interfered in the government, and frequently offered Louis poor
advice. Further, since she was a member of the royal family of Austria,
France’s long-time enemy, Marie Antoinette had been unpopular from
the moment she set foot in France. Her behavior only made the situation
worse. As queen, she spent so much money on gowns, jewels, gambling,
and gifts that she became known as “Madame Deficit.”
a church tax,
one-tenth of a